grapevineCounterpane Memoriesgrapevine


"When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day...
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane."

. . . . . Robert Louis Stevenson

Serious illness illness in children is never a laughing matter. Even after the super-scourges--polio, scarlet fever, smallpox, diphtheria--had been swept away by vaccines, the typical childhood ailments, among them German measles, measles, chicken pox, and mumps, were still a problem. Most children sailed through them despite severe discomforts of fever and itching, but blindness and death occasionally accompanied measles, victims of chicken pox risked scarring and neurological problems if aspirin were taken for the fever, undiagnosed German measles spread to an expectant mother was a disaster.

Today's medicine removes those serious threats and even makes hash of most mild infections: a child fetched from school on Friday and dosed carefully will probably be well enough for that math test on Monday, and Mom or Dad won't lose too much time from work taking care of him. In lives saved it's a true blessing.

How different "staying home sick" was back then!

Of course every child plays sick occasionally–now or then it hasn't changed. Breathes there a kid with a soul so dead who didn't try to get out of tomorrow's science test, yet another lesson on "sets" and Venn diagrams, a history paper, book report presentations, the critical musical performance, or just the tumult of the day in general. But our stay-at-home moms were usually too canny for that. We looked in envy on the few kids whose mothers were "pushovers" and who could stay home merely by groaning and clutching their stomach. We had to work a lot harder with ours.

And we usually lost, too, because the moment you whined "Mommy, I don't feel good," she whipped out the trusty thermometer and stuck it under your tongue (or in a more uncomfortable place if you were a smaller child). Oh, how we hated that thin glass tube with its intriguing stripe of silver mercury in the middle. It was the judge and jury in the decision of staying home, and it usually wasn't on our side.

(Only one glorious time did it pan out: Mom came home to find me with the thermometer under my tongue; it was Monday and I simply could not stand one more terminally boring Catechism class, led by a very nice lay teacher who unfortunately spent the weekly hour droning from a textbook so dry it could sublet to the Sahara. "What's wrong?" she demanded, hands on hips, to which I did my best Camille imitation and murmured that I didn't feel well. When she pulled the thermometer from my mouth and it read 101 F, I was as surprised as she was. I had chickenpox, which I was eternally grateful for: it got me out of Catechism class for three weeks.

Occasionally even Mom broke the rules. I was allowed to "be sick" a couple of times during the space missions--I had to stay in bed and take aspirin, but I could watch TV. I was one of those folks utterly disappointed when Alan Bean turned the camera into the sun and we received no transmissions from Apollo 12's lunar walks. I was a big fan of the space coverage and was glued to the set for all the moon missions–what was a dopey science class compared to this?)

On the other hand, Mom also had a sterling propensity for realizing you were sick even if you were making the effort to be well for some event, whether it be the start of a vacation period, art class, or a birthday party. At the least sigh of listlessness, dull eyes or a hacking cough, out would come Mr. Thermometer, and poof, you were in bed for the duration of the class field trip, like the coveted yearly sojourn to the Rhode Island Philharmonic every January.

Today doctors advise that children with temperatures should be allowed to get dressed and play if they feel okay and if activity does not make them worse. Our mothers scoffed at this stuff. The first thing you did when faced with a fever was get put to bed, and pajamas were required, winter or summer. Next came the aspirin. As a kid I couldn't swallow pills: I choked, gagged, and spit them back up. I took Liquiprim liquid aspirin until I was twelve–mmmm! bubblegum flavor--and my allergy medication was a supposedly "lemon-lime flavored" syrup that apparently got its taste from the Spanish Inquisition. Finally the doctor demanded I take real, adult aspirin. Mom coped with this by grinding the aspirin up into a jigger of orange juice, followed by a juice chaser. There are a few things worse tasting than ground-up aspirin in orange juice, but all are medical drinks used for "cleaning you out" before CAT scans and surgery. Finally one day antibiotics in a capsule were required. I shoved it down, drank, and it stayed down. I took pills in that manner for years afterwards.

If your fever was high enough, you had an alcohol rubdown. This method is frowned upon today, due to the fumes, and trust me, I understand why. Mom would slap great handfuls of alcohol on my back--Lord, that was cold on winter days!--and my chest and for several minutes the strong smell made it hard to breathe. You snuggled down in the blankets to get warm again (even in summer; Mom insisted).

After medication, which, if you were coughing, might include Vicks Vapo-Rub worked vigorously into your neck and chest, things were better. Smelling a bit like a distillery and many times like camphor, you could sleep late with a stuffed animal to cuddle..

I was lucky--my bedroom was off the kitchen. With the door open I was deep in the comfort of a warm house. Mom, between housework, would come in, check my forehead, give me juice or milk and make me drink copious amounts of water (the bathroom was my friend.) She usually had the radio on and this was one of the best parts of staying home. She listened to WJAR, "Nine-twenty WJAyeArrrr," as the commercial sang, who had two delightful talk show hosts, Dick Pace in the early morning and Jack Comley later on. Comley was my favorite: a former law school graduate who became a sportswriter and later a radio personality. He was fresh, funny, and occasionally abrasive. He would lavish care on his regulars; elderly callers, like the lady who called up and sang in warbling tones; and small children, but be quick to snap at supposedly knowledgeable adults who argued opinions without facts to support them and teenagers who couldn't express more than two words without tossing in "you know."When Jack Comley died from cancer in 1974, I felt as if I'd lost a friend.

The radio held other delights. If Mom wanted music she'd put on WLKW, "beautiful music" guaranteed to make most teenagers gag. I liked it, especially the "36 Hours of Christmas." I remember other things, like "Briggs Limited presents the time," occasionally Salty Brine–especially on winter mornings waiting for the school closing announcements (when you wished you lived in the magic land of "Fosta-Glosta"). When Mom wanted all news, she tuned to the Providence Journal's radio station, WEAN, which was all news back then.

Plus the smells of the kitchen would sustain me: Mom's breakfast, and the heady scent of Autocrat coffee ("a swallow will tell you") percolating on the stove.

Once Mom thought I'd rested enough, I could read, or perhaps work a small puzzle book, interrupted by her flawless schedule of medication. Despite the fact that when hospitals give you meds, they frequently give you several different doses at once, Mom would never, ever allow any of us to take medications at the same time. If the doctor prescribed an antibiotic--cheerfully delivered by Anthony or Albert from DiLorenzo's Drug Store on Cranston Street--and perhaps cough medicine, Mom would take a sheet of paper and dutifully set up a schedule for each of the doses. I might have aspirin at nine, three, and nine, penicillin at ten, two, and six, cough medicine at eleven, four, and seven. Promptly on the hour I got whatever was slotted for that time.

If I wasn't very sick, in the afternoon I was allowed to go into the parlor and watch television. This was carefully supervised. Mom made up a bed for me on the sofa, blankets, pillows and all, while I used the bathroom. Then I had to lie down on the sofa and be still. It was okay, there were plenty of things then to be still for. At noon was the best part of staying home sick, and of summer vacation. No noon news back then, at least not on Channel 10: instead we watched Jeopardy, the original version, filmed in New York with Art Fleming as host and Double Jeopardy going as far as {gasp!} $100! I loved Jeopardy and planned to go to New York and try out for it when I was eighteen, since there were no teen tournaments in those days. (Alas, it was cancelled before then.) Following Jeopardy at one time was another tough quiz show, The Who, What or Where Game. My eleventh-grade English teacher, Miss Lorenzo, competed on this show and we were allowed to watch it in class at Cranston East.

While Jeopardy was on, Mom would bring lunch, soup of course. Like all Italian mammas from Federal Hill, Mom made her own soup, a combination chicken-beef broth with just a touch of tomato in it to give it a rich color. It would have egg noodles in it because they cooked quickly and she'd give me a few Premium Saltine crackers on the side. No one had to prove the positive value of chicken soup back in those days; just finishing this savory concoction would make you feel better.

Before the NBC soaps, which started at two, we would always watch The Mike Douglas Show, on WBZ-TV out of Boston (back when it was an NBC affiliate). This was my favorite of the talk shows. Mike had a gorgeous singing voice and a laid-back style, and his guests were always interesting–they ranged from old favorites like Robert Goulet to the trendy "kids on the block" like Jimmie "J.J." Walker from Good Times. I confess that one of the reasons I always wanted to watch was that Mike occasionally had as a guest Charles Eisenmann, who trained "London," the German Shepherd in the series The Littlest Hobo. He would bring London and his mate, both gorgeous black-and-silver Shepherd dogs (not the tan kind with the black saddle like Rin-Tin-Tin) and put them through their paces.

Then it was soap opera time. When I was very small my mom watched the classic CBS lineup, most of which had come over from radio: The Guiding Light, The Secret Storm, The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow--mysterious Gothic titles for stories that contained mere tearful confessions of infidelity and drinking problems. She didn't like me watching them at that age so I would usually be relegated back to my bed, but I could hear the television from my room and you could almost make out what was going on by sound, from the panicked chords of the ubiquitous organ music every time some hideous revelation came to light. As on radio, they were all fifteen minutes long well into the mid-1960s. Later in the afternoons back then was one of my favorite programs, The Loretta Young Show, which I was allowed to watch. This was an anthology of stories she hosted and occasionally starred in. In the introduction she would open a door into "your home" and greet you, swirling through the doorway in an elegant full skirt in a lovely touch. I wasn't much on dressing up and girls' clothes, but I swore when I grew up I wanted to wear a skirt just like Loretta Young's.

By the time I was old enough for the soaps, Mom had for some inexplicable reason switched allegiance to the NBC "daytime dramas." I remember them all, Days of Our Lives (with MacDonald Carey's dulcet tones saying "as the sands in the hourglass, so are the days of our lives"), The Doctors (with James Pritchett), and Another World, the first half-hour soap back when it premiered in 1964. (Later Mom also watched Somerset, a spin-off of AW.).

Be assured I wasn't always watching this parade of hand-wringing, although I did get pretty involved in Another World later on (the popular saga of Alice and Steve and Rachel went on for years, but I was watching because I had a tremendous crush on Michael M. Ryan, who played John Randolph). It was pretty certain I'd have a book in my hands and I'd be a lot more absorbed with Black Beauty and Lassie or a random volume of the World Book Encyclopedia than with Docs Horton and Powers and the various Matthews' kids. If I was well enough, Mom would bring me my pen and composition book and crayons and I'd lose myself writing and illustrating a story.

At three-thirty, just before Dad got home, the sturm and drang was over and it was time for entertainment again. Before the soaps started to breed into the late afternoon, Tom Kennedy hosted the game show You Don't Say! This was two teams each headed by a celebrity. The game, should you not have guessed from the title, involved the contestant guessing a word that was not said. Then at four o'clock came the really hilarious series, The Match Game. This wasn't the later 1970s game with the six celebrities including Brett Somers and Richard Dawson. The original 60s' version did have Gene Rayburn, but there were two teams of three people, each headed by a celebrity and, as was typical of the times, the set was very simple and the show was filmed in black and white (which was the only color we could see it in anyway).

Dad was home by then, if he wasn't working overtime, asking me how I was and watching Match Game with us. Then Dad would read the paper, Mom would cook dinner, and I'd be free to watch Timmy and Lassie on Channel 6. We always had soup with our dinner except when we had macaroni, so I'd have another dose of that libation, and then the meal if I were up to it. And of course it would be an early night unless I could convince Mom that a good dose of What's My Line? or Daktari would do me a world of good.

Sometimes it didn't go so smoothly. Chicken pox wasn't bad in total: it kept me in bed a glorious two and a half weeks, free to read what I wanted when I wanted once I felt a bit better after a bout of sleeping. The annoying part was the itch--and the socks over my hands to keep me from scratching. Measles I was unlucky enough to catch in the midst of summer vacation. It was the usual scorcher of a July in a house with no air conditioning; it wouldn't have been as bad if the windows could have been flung wide to the air, but the blinds had to stay down and closed because of the measles' potential for damaging your eyesight. And since I had a fever, a fan wasn't allowed, which made being sick into a rotisserie event. The only good part about the measles was getting to see Dr. Simone, my pediatrician, whom I adored. He never stuck the tongue depressor down my throat and his shots barely hurt, and his office, a big old Victorian house way up on Smith Street past Rhode Island College, had a delightful circus theme, with animal figures all around the wall and a motif of clowns and a big main ring on the floor.

Plus he was funny. He walked into the house--back in those halcyon days when doctors made house calls rather than allowing sick people to come to them and spread germs to everyone in the waiting room--and took one look at my face and chanted "Linda's got the squeezles, Linda's got the squeezles!" This both relieved my mom that I wasn't about to expire any time soon and made me laugh, so it was a winning ticket.

Dear Dr. Simone. He died of a heart attack when I was eleven and I never did have another doctor quite like him.

On my end, the mumps weren't serious. I even did what everyone told me I wouldn't be able to do because of the pain it would cause, eat an orange.

However, a monkey wrench had gotten tossed in the works by the arrival of the mump express. It was Thanksgiving and we usually went out to eat; this was before small turkeys were common and a large turkey for a family of three would guarantee we'd consume turkey for weeks. Mom wisely suggested we have chicken instead. But we can't, wailed the Little Traditionalist, it's Thanksgiving. You eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

So the turkey came home and Mom cooked it as best she could. Her heart wasn't in it; she laothed turkey breast and she knew Dad and I would take the lion's share of the dark meat and leave her with the breast. Plus, despite her talent at other meals, she was truly unskilled in cooking a big bird like that in her temperamental Glenwood stove, the one that regularly ruined her cakes. Despite her best efforts at turkey cuisine, the legs came out overdone and leathery, and, as she predicted, the breast was dry, despite repeated drowning in giblet gravy. But by God we had our turkey for Thanksgiving, tasting, I figure now, a lot like it probably tasted in 1620--dry over-done meat cooked on a hot fire.

These days I'm occupied with keeping well, consuming vitamins and supplements along with regular prescription drugs. Colds are something to avoid and when sustained, to get over as quickly as possible to avoid a visit to the doctor, in the meantime hobbling in the kitchen for some soup out of a can. Like today's kids, I'm back on my feet before I know it. Still, it's nice to daydream about the old days, when there was hot homemade soup and cozy blankets, chattering media and friends with bindings and pages, and a warm Mom to keep you safe and well.

 

"The Land of Counterpane"...Robert Louis Stevenson

 

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